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“So, it had to be Berlin and London – cities where memories of destruction and violence have seeped into the fabric of the buildings.” SJ Naudé discusses the backstory of his novel, The Third Reel, shortlisted for the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

SJ Naudé studied at Cambridge University and Columbia Law School. He is the author of The Alphabet of Birds, a collection of short stories, and this novel, The Third Reel. He has won the Eugene Marais Prize, the University of Johannesburg Prize (debut and main prize) and a South African Literary Award. He was awarded the Jan Rabie and Marjorie Wallace Writing Grant for 2014. His work has appeared in Granta and journals in the US, the Netherlands and Italy. He has worked as a lawyer in New York and London, and now lives in Johannesburg.

SJ Naudé, author of The Third Reel. ©Joanne Olivier.

 
Novels tend to be (at least half) a lifetime in the making. Pinpointing their origin can be tricky. Even if you think you know where your book germinated, you probably don’t. With that caveat in mind, I believe I can trace back the first stirrings of The Third Reel to a conversation I once had with a London lecturer in film theory. It centred around “ghost films” — lost films from the 1920s and ’30s of which only damaged prints, fragments or stills remain. Sometimes only posters or descriptions. Back then, films were seen as fleeting entertainment, and not worth preserving. Today, there are film archives and lists of lost films, and people dedicated to finding the latter. And occasionally a “lost” film does surface in an old storeroom or attic.

In this world of nebulous images, lost in the mists of time, my protagonist Etienne started taking shape. He appeared as a young South African draft dodger, exiled in London; someone who had no choice but to flee the brutally oppressive South Africa of the mid-80s.

Etienne would then embark on an obsessive search for a lost underground film made by a small group of Jewish filmmakers in early Nazi Germany. His search would lure him from London to Berlin, where it takes labyrinthine turns as he starts tangling with the more menacing aspects of Ostblock paranoia. He would also find some freedom as the unbridled drummer for an industrial rock band.

The character of Axel then emerged — a German artist with whom Etienne would have a stormy relationship, its course to be charted by the scarred cities in which their love develops, and by the long shadows of historical trauma. A backstory of Axel’s family, and their connections to the film Etienne is searching for, also crystallised.

Etienne finds himself caught between various oppressive regimes. He has left apartheid South Africa only to land in Thatcher’s conservative Britain and then East Germany. The Cold War is chilling the air. Geopolitics are explosive. And then there is the book’s Nazi-era subplot. There are parallels between the regimes, although the novel wants to avoid false or easy congruences.

So, it had to be Berlin and London — cities where memories of destruction and violence have seeped into the fabric of the buildings. And it had to be the 1980s — when it still seemed as if one could change the future. When the world was ideologically bipolar, and everything was in flux. When the young people in my novel could still imagine utopia, even if only a new kind of urban life that would allow everyone to live freely, love freely and make art freely.

Thirty years on, in the era of the single superpower, we know that power has been ominously entrenched. And, remarkably, the spectre of authoritarianism is rising again. The Third Reel is then perhaps a book of nostalgia for a time when a radically different world still seemed tantalisingly possible, and fighting for it seemed essential.

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